In December 2013, the journalist Yasmin Nair wrote a response on her blog to the magazine Jacobin killing one of her articles, entitled “On Writers as Scabs, Whores, and Interns: The Jacobin Problem.” The aim of the piece was to expose the hypocrisy of small internet publications like Jacobin that espouse radical views while failing to pay their writers a decent wage. “You would think that the left media would, at the very least, adhere to basic standards of pay,” Nair laments, not unreasonably. She then goes on to find a couple of convenient scapegoats: “The problem with publishing today, even and perhaps especially on the Left, is that it is increasingly becoming crowded with people with enough money to ‘do’ writing as a hobby … and that most publishers think of paying writers out of a general sense of noblesse oblige.” She particularly objects to the idea that “writing is some kind of special snowflake activity,” and suggests that
the phrase [“labor of love”] needs to be excised from all languages, and every person who uses it should be made to pay a $50 fine, every single time. If they happen to be a publisher or editor, the fine should go up to $500. If you’re a working writer like me … you should be allowed to pummel everyone who uses the phrase with a very large, iron hammer, with impunity.
Nair’s rhetoric in this post is clearly heartfelt but also a little tongue-in-cheek; the post feels like an attempt to blow off steam after a frustrating editing experience and, in the process, point out some of the larger structural problems of the radical publishing world. But a more recent post, written in semi-response to Corey Robin (himself responding to a widely circulated op-ed by Nicholas Kristof about the value of public intellectuals), is more polemical still, and broadens her critique to include websites devoted to literature and culture as well as those advancing an explicitly lefist agenda:
[T]hose who write for free or very little simply because they can afford to are scabs. This would include not just academics with tenured or tenure-track positions, but adjuncts, professionals (like paid activists and organisers), as well as just about anybody who writes for places like Guernica, The Huffington Post, open Democracy.net, and The Rumpus.
I’m not going to touch Nair’s calculatedly outrageous use of the term “scab.” As others have pointed out (including Chris Sherman, in a Facebook comment Nair reproduces below her essay), the term “scab” historically means someone who breaks a strike, not someone who is willing to work for a lower wage, but I’ll leave it to labor historians and activists to draw the larger consequences of Nair’s misuse of this word for her argument. I’ll also leave to observers of the academic labor market her lumping together of tenured and tenure-track professors with struggling adjuncts, which seems far too blunt to constitute a useful class analysis.
And, for the record, I find myself agreeing with many points in Nair’s unfailingly provocative essay. For instance, her generalization of the critique of internships and the casualization of labor to writing is shrewd and timely, I think. “The system of free writing has created a caste system, with those who can afford to work for free doing so while those who can’t struggling to pay the bills and often giving up,” she writes; and, to the objection that many novice writers start out writing for free and eventually graduate to paid jobs, she answers: “[I]t’s not their free writing and ‘exposure’ that got them their jobs; it’s their ability to survive without having to depend on writing for a livelihood that guaranteed they could continue to write for nothing.” These are important points, and easy ones to forget or to blind oneself to.
But I do want to object to a few of Nair’s historical and political claims. One is that the situation she describes — in which journalists and freelancers who make a living from writing are resentful of academics and other professionals who only moonlight — is somehow a product of something called neoliberalism (which she defines as “the rationalisation of capitalist exploitation under the rubric of ‘choice’”). But similar concerns were raised frequently throughout the golden age of the American little magazine (roughly 1900-1960), which was, by anybody’s standard, well before the rise of neoliberalism (usually taken to be an elite response to the political and economic crises of 1973-74). Literary and political magazines alike, from Hound and Horn and the Kenyon Review to Dissent and the New Left Review, have long been dominated by academics: partly because they could afford to work for free, and partly because they cared enough about American intellectual life to start and contribute to such unprofitable ventures. Nair insists that “we have to consider how workplaces operate differently under neoliberalism, especially in the world of publishing which survives in print and online formats.” This may be true, but it would be at least as useful, I suggest, to produce a history of the professional relations between academics and journalists, going as far back as the eighteenth century, with particular attention to these questions of unpaid labor and “moonlighting.”
Pushing the origin point of Nair’s critique further back into the past doesn’t invalidate it, of course. It does, however, help to temper some of her harsher pronouncements about today’s intellectual publishing scene. “Paying for writers is no guarantee of quality,” she acknowledges, before taking a passing pot shot at Kristof, but still holds that “the long-term effects” of allowing writers to go un- or underpaid
are deleterious and many. We’re losing a sense of what it really means to develop and sustain an intellectual culture. If you can’t pay for writing, you’re not going to get work that actually interrogates the status quo and will only end up rehashing the same opinions over and over again.
This, in my view, has it almost backwards. The vitality of small publications like Jacobin (and The Rumpus, and The New Inquiry, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and n+1, and Avidly) is closely related to the ways they have managed to evade or short-circuit the established journalistic market. These venues allow people to write and publish pieces (usually for little to no money, it’s true) that they would not otherwise be able to publish, either because they would be assigned to more established, credentialed writers or because no established publication would accept them at all. While Nair looks at the low pay rates of these publications and sees only exploitation, she neglects to point out that such rates allow editors to take risks that they otherwise wouldn’t, and to publish work that goes against the grain. This is something that Nair, a past contributor to sites like In These Times and The Awl, must know, but that she chooses to downplay for the sake of her argument. Without these outlets, these radical or unconventional pieces simply wouldn’t be written, or else they would remain on personal blogs with much smaller and more stratified audiences.
Nor will Nair’s hard-and-fast separation between writers on one side and editors and publishers on the other stand up to empirical scrutiny. Editors at these magazines are rarely paid commensurately to their work either (many aren’t paid at all), and few publishers have figured out a way to extract real profits from the labor they facilitate. (A company like the Huffington Post, which does indeed make a profit off unpaid labor, is an exception to the rule.) This may be cold comfort to struggling freelancers, but from an economic perspective the situation is less one of exploitation from above than it is of mutual unsustainability.
Then, too, there are political problems. Nair identifies as a person of the left — “the bastard child of queer theory and deconstruction,” according to her website bio — and in her post she frequently uses the language of Marxism, often somewhat loosely. I do think her position is more or less consistent with a certain socialism, but not with the kind of radical public sphere she seems to want to promote. Absent communal ownership of the means of production, a strictly socialist position, like a strictly capitalist one, presupposes the market as the arbiter of value; it’s just that it’s a regulated market, not a free one. Socialists think that if we acquiesce to one of capitalism’s basic premises — that everything, including labor, can be bought and sold — then we can avoid the worst consequences of one of its other premises: that the chessboard can be overturned at any time by a new strategy or a new technology, and that there’s no such thing as “fixed” and “fair” when it comes to prices and values. There is, then, certainly a feasible socialist way of organizing the publishing world in order to resolve the problems Nair raises. It involves setting clear, enforceable standards for what different kinds of writing and other literary labor are worth, and sticking to them. This kind of roughly socialist solution seems to be what Nair is advocating, and it’s a perfectly respectable, if impractical and unlikely, thing to desire.
But this solution would not produce the sort of public sphere Nair wants (and that — cards on table — I want, too). Contrary to her rhetoric, which suggests that a critical utopia is just a collective action away, I’m not sure there’s a truly radical solution so readily at hand; that is, a solution that both ensures fairness and promotes the kind of radical public discourse Nair values. If part of the left’s goal is to combat something called “neoliberalism” by upsetting or destroying all current relations of production, thus hastening a revolution followed by full communism, then insisting that writers refuse to write for a “pay rate [not] starting in the hundreds” is extremely wrongheaded. How exactly does Nair think radical ideas are going to get into circulation if everyone holds out for top dollar before expressing them?
Indeed, it seems to me that Nair’s jabs at Jacobin and the like reflect a longstanding tension between the socialist left and the artistic/intellectual avant-garde. The little magazine was, in its time, an avant-garde form, as contemporary web publications are in ours, and the avant-garde has never been conspicuous for its equality. The hard truth for socialists committed to fair pay is that part of what makes these publications avant-garde is also what makes it difficult for them to pay adequately: their marginality to the normal market relations and contracting practices of the publishing world. For better and worse, the form of the little magazine/website is inextricably linked with the history of capitalism, which is also driven by a logic of “innovation” and “disruption.” (I don’t mean, of course, that little magazines can’t or shouldn’t oppose capitalism; only that their day-to-day business operations are unlikely to be fully consistent with their ideology, in the absence of extensive funding from the capitalist private sector or, I suppose, the state.) To the extent that leftist intellectuals have participated in avant-garde projects, they have made a compromise. It’s a little late to regret this, especially if that attitude involves impugning the motives of people who are inspired by different ideals than Nair’s.
I’ve been trying to avoid the “L” words here, for fear of Yasmin’s silver hammer coming down upon my head. But actually, screw it: Labors of love will always exist, and that is a good thing; you can’t simply bracket out what people care about in the name of a more just economic arrangement. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t agitate to get paid for those labors. Nair is right that today’s little magazines don’t pay nearly enough, even if she’s largely wrong about why, and that prestige is a currency that only certain writers can afford to accept. I agree that there ought to be more public pressure on these nascent journalistic institutions to pay better, and more transparency from the magazines themselves about their business practices. (The website Who Pays Writers?, started in 2013 by Manjula Martin, is an excellent practical step in this direction.) What we shouldn’t do is demonize writers, editors, and publishers for making compromises in the service of ideals other than a perfectly regulated labor market. The truth is, people make compromises for what they love — as do institutions — and to expect anything else is a fantasy of orthodoxy.
–Evan Kindley: Saying “alas” to less and less.